The Time That Remains (France/Italy/Belgium/UK 2009)

The impact of the death of Gamal Abdel Nasser in 1970 is felt in the Suleiman household.

What a terrific film! It is astonishing that someone could become such an accomplished and controlled filmmaker after only a handful of features spread over many years. The Time That Remains is intensely moving, very funny and incisive in its critique. It won’t please everybody and I confess that I only ‘got’ parts of it because of the investment I made in exploring writer-director Elia Suleiman’s previous film, Divine Intervention (2002).

Like the earlier film, The Time That Remains is a sharp commentary on the Israeli occupation of the Palestinian town of Nazareth which was ‘incorporated’ into the state of Israel in 1948. This time the historical events provide the structure of the film that tells the story of the director’s own family. The film opens in the present but soon switches to the moment of the Arab defeat in July 1948 when Elia’s father Fouad is a young toolmaker providing the local men with weapons. The narrative then moves forward to re-visit the Suleiman family when the son (referred to as ‘E.S.’) is first a young schoolboy, then an older student and finally in the present when the director, playing himself, visits his elderly mother.

The linear narrative with clear historical references makes the film in some ways more accessible than the series of sketches which detail contemporary life in Nazareth as seen in Divine Intervention. The recognisable structure means that, at least for me, it doesn’t feel as comedic or surreal as the earlier film (which also featured Suleiman Senior), though there are moments of surreal comedy. For instance, a running gag sees a next door neighbour who routinely gets drunk – in the first few scenes dowsing himself in petrol and trying to immolate himself and in later scenes claiming that his drunken state gives him powers that enable him to pluck Israeli planes from the sky. “It’s only logical” he says. (This is a Christian Arab community, so drinking arak is not as shocking as some commentators imply.) Other tropes of the director’s style also carry over from the previous film. He himself remains a largely passive character who never speaks – though he has some interesting non-verbal interactions with his mother. In several scenes the camera is kept static while comic scenes unfold in long shot – a hospital corridor is shown from outside the building as police and doctors play a game of tag with a wounded man, pulling his stretcher trolley one way and then the other.

Apart from the opening wartime scene, which includes a comic commentary on the failures of the Arab armies in 1948 (and which disturbingly shows the Israeli soldiers dressed much like British ‘tommies’ – which many of them had been – committing atrocities in Nazareth), the film is more subtle in its critique than Divine Intervention. Or at least, that’s how it felt to me. Peter Bradshaw in the Guardian seems to like the film but complains that the title isn’t explained. He suggests that it signals a kind of acceptance. I don’t agree with this and Suleiman himself offers this statement (which if it first appears elliptical, does, I think, make sense:

“The [title] of this film is a political term that describes the Palestinians who remain on their own land, who are insiders and absentees, while they remain on their own land,” Suleiman continued, “It’s a very political term which I appropriated . . . from my personal context being present and absent, someone who is an outsider and an insider, someone who does not live in one place but always departs.” (from indiewire, May 2009)

Suleiman himself is in some ways a typical Palestinian filmmaker – ‘exilic’ in his perspective as an outsider and insider. The film is essentially his own observations on the memories bestowed to him by his father and the letters and cards sent by other relatives who moved to Jordan. As is often the case, the most powerful statements against the occupation are the most personal. In school, the young ES is challenged for claiming that the Americans are ‘colonialists’ and ‘imperialists’. The (Arab) school wins a prize in a Hebrew singing competition. A screening of Spartacus in the school stimulates the children’s sense of resistance – as their teacher attempts to protect them from the film’s portrayal of sexual desire.

Suleiman’s work is often compared to Jacques Tati and Buster Keaton in terms of sight gags and to Buñuel in its surrealism. This film has also prompted references to Fellini for its personal histories (i.e. like Amarcord). I think all these references can be justified but I worry that they deflect attention from Suleiman’s original, personal and highly political perspective on a specific tragedy – the occupation of Palestine.

This fascinating Facebook page on the film offers links to extracts, photos and background materials.

Here is the UK trailer:

Seen at Chapter, Cardiff Cinema 2, 29/7/10

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